A working-class mother without a college education, Celeste Ribeiro Myers was an unconventional leader for East Boston’s successful anticasino movement. Now, she is waging an uphill battle to unseat incumbent state Representative Carlo P. Basile, a Democrat she previously supported — in a campaign focused once again on gambling.
Myers, 42, said her relationship with Basile was first tested in 2010, when she took her concerns about casinos to elected officials from East Boston.
“Pretty much the sentiment I got was, ‘Mind your business,’ ” she said in a recent interview.
Myers doesn’t like being told what to do, she said, and soon she and her brother John Ribeiro formed the group No Eastie Casino with other neighborhood residents concerned about the crime, traffic, and increased gambling addiction they feared a casino would bring.
Basile, 43, voted in 2011 to expand gambling in Massachusetts and supported last year’s proposal to build at Suffolk Downs, he said in an interview, because he saw it as an opportunity to help constituents who regularly come to him seeking jobs.
But when his neighbors voted 56 percent to 44 percent against the plan, he shifted his position and fought to defend that vote, he said.
Basile’s actions since last November have not persuaded Myers or her supporters, but observers in this politically active neighborhood say Myers faces an uphill battle in defeating an incumbent known for being responsive to his constituents.
Because Myers is running as an independent, though, her name will appear on the November ballot along with a statewide casino referendum, an issue that could drive East Boston voters to the polls.
Mary Ellen Welch, a lifelong East Boston resident and neighborhood activist since 1967, said that was a shrewd tactic that could bring extra votes into the win column for Myers.
She said Basile appears to have a strong base of older voters and longtime neighborhood residents, as well as military veterans, a group he has championed as chairman of the Legislature’s Committee on Veterans Affairs. Myers, though, is “a new voice” and may appeal to the neighborhood’s growing population of recent arrivals, Welch said.
“My impression is Celeste has a lot of support among the newer people in the community, the people who got behind No Eastie Casino and then the people who are concerned about development — or overdevelopment, I should say,” she said.
Basile, who once rented an apartment to Myers and her family, said he was surprised by her decision to challenge him but stopped short of calling it disloyal.
“She has the right to run. Everybody has the right to run,” he said at the kitchen table of his Orient Heights home. “But I love my job, and I’m going to work hard to serve the people of East Boston, and I want to continue to serve the people of East Boston.”
He said the question of whether a casino will be built at Suffolk Downs is important, but just one of many concerns facing his diverse, mostly working-class constituents.
“There’s bigger issues here in East Boston,” he said. “Drug addiction, housing; the elderly need help; our children need help. . . . I get requests all the time that a child has not gotten into a school. These are the issues that I hear more so now than the casino issue.”
Myers’s biggest challenge may be convincing voters that she is more than the anticasino candidate. An event planner and administrator for Spinelli’s Catering in East Boston, she has no experience in government, but what she does have, she said, is humility.
“I don’t have all the answers,” she said. “I’m smart enough to reach out to the folks who are smarter than me. . . . I think our biggest failure is when we refuse to see our own limitations and we refuse to . . . reach out to experts and go beyond what we know ourselves.”
She would like to tackle the cronyism that she said controls too much of the development in the neighborhood, and to ensure that social services are meeting the needs of the community’s diverse populations, she said.
She is concerned about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights and immigration issues, she said, and about fostering an environment in which victims of crimes are not afraid to come forward.
Emanuel “Gus” Serra, who held the seat Myers seeks for 28 years before stepping down in 1999, said, though, that the casino issue is the only one where he has seen Myers take a strong public position.
“I think she’s a one-issue candidate,” he said. “I think she saw something happen that she thought that she could catapult a career out of, and I don’t think that’s the case. I really don’t.”
Welch, the longtime neighborhood activist, said such perceptions of Myers could change when she and Basile meet in the fall for a series of public debates.
“She does have opinions and ideas about a lot of other things; they just haven’t come out into the public view,” she said.